*** out of ****
(for some suggestive references, language, and thematic elements)
Released: May 20, 2022
Runtime: 125 minutes
Directed by: Simon Curtis
Starring: Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Joanne Froggart, Brendan Coyle, Robert James-Collier, Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, Penelope Wilton, Imelda Staunton, Hugh Dancy, Dominic West, Laura Haddock, Harry Hadden-Paton, Kevin Doyle, Raquel Cassidy, Michael Fox, Tuppence Middleton, Douglas Reith
The most reliable escapist fare of the past decade has been Downton Abbey. Over six TV seasons and one feature film, the early-20th Century Brit melodrama never been bad, miraculously avoiding stale monotony and desperate jump-the-shark reaches. Moreover, it’s been consistently satisfying in every installment. Whatever it is that fans want from this franchise, they get it every single time.
The second feature, Downton Abbey: A New Era, is no different. Indeed, it is the epitome of what Downton diehards hope for: another excursion into the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their house staff, one filled with delicious turns, rapier wit, palatial settings and locales, a bit of matchmaking romance (and more), all in an elegant world defined by manners and grace (even in the midst of its quasi-soapy plots).
It’s all so perfectly, flawlessly crafted — set to composer John Lunn’s breezy, stately orchestrations — with characters (and actors) who have genuine affection for each other.
In one sense, even as there are surprises along the way, A New Era gives fans what they’re expecting from this enduring saga. It’s become more of a sumptuous, comfort-food viewing experience than anything else, an anglophile theme park ride in narrative form.
A New Era is as transportive an entry as Downton has ever staged (and, I’d contend, even more so than the digital VFX worlds of comic book blockbusters), whisking viewers into an idyllic world from a century ago, far away from our present burdens.
That’s not to say the plotting is lazy or perfunctory. On the contrary, creator Julian Fellowes (who has single-handedly written every word of every chapter by himself) offers up yet another intriguing storyline (two, actually) from his seemingly bottomless well of upstairs / downstairs theatrics.
One involves a Hollywood production coming to Downton (in a contrivance so entertaining that even the sound engineer is a hilarious highlight). The other is sparked by a secret from Lady Violet’s past (Maggie Smith is as charmingly elitist as ever), and it leads half the family on a venture to the French Riviera that, among other things, is quite the luxurious travelog.
In both, it’s adorable to see the Old Guard (both upstairs and down) fuss and bristle at any hint of modernity even as the New Generation is smitten and fascinated, at times uncontrollably giddy.
Yet for as involving as these machinations are (Fellowes has such a way with these characters, as does the perfectly-cast ensemble), the drama is almost beside the point when it comes to the main appeal of this specific movie and its larger franchise, i.e. that it simply is such a thrill to be in this world, with these people, regardless of what Fellowes has concocted for them.
Nevertheless, what he has conjured here is at times blissful wish fulfillment, at other times tearful, but always imbued with meaning and gratitude.
Most of all, Downton is deeply sentimental without ever being schmaltzy. That’s what’s forged the connection between the series and its legion of fans, and even seduced a wider global audience (including those who normally wouldn’t go for English period pieces).
That sentiment is ultimately what defines Downton Abbey: A New Era, too, and if this ends up being its last chapter then Downton’s final bow is truly a glorious curtain call.